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Personal Character of Thought.
of great and stately minds, but which transported from the past, and made to represent the little and despicable “notions” of their plunderers, become a very mockery.
Hitherto we have considered thought in its abstract character, as detached from the individual mind which originates it. But all thought is personal, i. e. is the product and property of an individual spirit. Its whole value is that it belongs to a subject, and is the expression or manifestation of the individual mind, just as language is, in a more outward degree, of thought itself. It has no absolute and independent existence or life apart from the life of the mind, any more than virtue or love or any other personal and spiritual attri
It is true we often speak of thought as impersonal, or as detached from its personal ground, but here, as when we speak of volition, action, character, etc., we abstract or set off, in order to distinguish the effect from the cause, or the property from the subject, not as implying any actual separation. If this view be correct, or if it indicate a partial truth, for we admit that it does not embrace the whole truth on this subject, its application to language will be obvi
The personal life and character of the individual extends and passes into the thought, and through this into the language, so that this becomes linked to the former not only by organic and vital, but even also by moral laws. As man is not a mere bundle or aggregate of powers, but an organic whole, as no faculty exists or acts isolated or independent of the rest, but all are combined in the unity of the moral life; so this life includes within its sphere all the developments or outward actings of these powers. This is readily enough conceded in the case of bodily acts, which though outward and physical, have yet a moral value attached to them. We simply assert the same in respect of language, which is a kind of bodily act of the mind. But this province of our subject is so fertile of reflection, and connects at so many points with what is inost vital in the whole philosophy of man, that we must restrict ourselves to one or two inferences more immediate to our purpose.
It follows from the personality of thought, that all true language is a direct and spontaneous growth or development of the individual being. Its whole significance lies in this, that it is an integral part of the man himself; that it expresses not what he bas, nor what he thinks simply, but what he is. This we say is the true idea and import of language, though we need not add that as such it is seldom realized. It is a serious and significant fact, that language as used by the mass of mankind, is anything but a true growth and exponent of the individual man.
We speak not here of any wilful or conscious insincerity; the very seriousness of the evil in question is that it is below consciousness, is so deeply rooted and grounded in the character as to become almost a part of human nature, and operates by a kind of necessity. The words of most men are separated from themselves by a double divorce; the first, between the thought and its expression, their language being conformed, not to the internal and individual law of the thought, i. e. vitally grown and wedded to it, but to some external conventional “style” or standard ; the second, between the thought and the being of the individual (and here we deem that we touch the fundamental error), for thought, even when genuine, is too rarely an original and vital growth of the mind which holds it. It is a thing acquired and held in the memory as a possession, not evolved from within as a growth. It is seldom indeed assimilated to the mind by reflection, as all which is received into it must be before it can pass into knowledge. Knowledge comes thus to be merely the sum of what a man has, not the result and exponent of what he is. It is something detached from the true substance and being of the man, as truly so as if it were a coin in the pocket instead of a thought in the mind. What wonder that language should so often be the powerless and lifeless thing it is, when thought itself is divorced from spirit and converted into mental lumber! Hence the false and pernicious maxims that lie at the root of all false culture; which speak of the learner's acquiring knowledge, or the writer's acquiring a style, as if either were a thing to be imported from without, and not rather produced or educed from within.
This organic unity subsisting between thought and its expression on the one hand, and between thought and spirit (including the heart or whole moral life) on the other, is what we cannot insist upon too strongly, since upon it depends all true effect whether of character or genius, if not the reality of genius itself. Indeed, the difference between a man of genius and an ordinary man, we are persuaded, is more a moral than an intellectual difference, at least as these words are commonly understood. If we might indicate it in one word, it would be integrity, comprehending in this, sincerity and entireness ; or since genius manifests itself chiefly in this department, we may call it intellectual integrity, integrity possessing and pervading the mind, thoughts and words, in distinction from moral integrity, or that which is applied and limited to moral actions. Two conditions belong to this power, or at least to every manifestation of it, viz. thought and its expression. Now whatever may be the differences of these, since they must necessarily differ in power and value in different individuals, which differences constitute the more or less of genius, yet there
Spiritual Connections with Language.
is one element or quality common to all, which stamps every thought and word of genius, a sort of family likeness running through and marking all as of one family or kindred. This is sometimes called “originality,” sometimes “ vitality;" we call it here integrity. It is that which connects or links together in one vital whole the innermost power and being of the man with the outermost expression of it. A man possessing it, is not one thing in himself, another in his thoughts, and another in his words ; but the stream of life and personality, so to speak, flows out through all in one unbroken current, just as we see it in childhood, which is the truest type and symbol of genius. Hence the spontaneousness which always characterizes this power. Hence, too, the originality or individuality of the man impresses itself upon his language. The language of a man of genius is a living growth, not borrowed from without, not isolated and detached from the living soul which utters it, but is an integral and organic part of the man himself. The same spirit which animates and informs the body, which looks out through the countenance, informs and dwells also in his words. Hence they are living words. The human soul is embodied and enshrined in them as truly as in any other part of the man. “The words that I speak unto you,” said Christ," they are spirit, and they are life.” And this leads us to make one remark respecting interpretation. To interpret a writer's language, we speak of that which is worth interpreting, by the appliances of logical or grammatical rules, or any merely external system of hermeneutics, appears to us very much like the attempt to interpret a smile by the laws of physiology. It is not what a smile is physically, as a certain contraction of certain muscles, nor what it is generically, as an expression of mental pleasure; but what we wish specially to know is, what does he, the individual, here and now, mean by it? To know the full meaning of a smile, we must first know (constructively, at least) the individual character of which this is a symbol, and as such partakes of that character; next, the peculiar thought or emotion or spiritual current which gave rise to it and flows through it, whether complacent fondness or mirth or derision. In other words, we must look at it not from without but from within, by a profound sympathy with the spirit and mind of the individual, not with the eyes only, but with the heart. And this is as truly necessary in the case of words as of looks. No one truly comprehends his author, no one is fit to be an interpreter, who cannot look as far behind and below the letter as the heart is below the countenance ; who is not so penetrated with the spirit of the writer, as to supersede in a measure the help of the words. We cannot conclude this part of our subject concerning the relation
of words to thoughts, without analyzing this relation a little further. It is not the whole truth to say that language is an expression of thought; it is also, in some sense, a limitation of thought, a compression of the infinite life and activity which belongs to mind within certain terms or limits. In language, certain thoughts stand forth from the mind, embodied in words. But these embodied thoughts do not express or exhaust all that is in the mind of the writer or speaker. No poet, we may believe, ever expressed a tithe of the poetry and beauty that was in him. Behind and below all that is written, is an infinite deep of thought, which cannot be embodied in words, which outreaches all possible combinations of language. Now this unuttered thought, so far from being of no account because not put into language, is, if we may be pardoned the paradox, the most essential part of language. It is that from which the latter grows, which charges it, so to speak, with its spiritual and vital energy. It is only through this vital or electric connection with what cannot be contained in words, that words themselves derive their almost magic might, that they become vehicles of power, of beauty or of terror—are spells to awaken and thrill the world, or but empty sounds, according to the spirit which employs them. All words are powerful according as they are symbolical or suggestive. Their value lies not so much in what they express as in what they indicate. Or, more strictly, the individual thought embodied and expressed in words, is a symbol, more or less suggestive, of what lies below and is unexpressed. The great secret of writing with effect, therefore, is to employ such words or symbols as are most suggestive and characteristic; which indicate, most truly and comprehensively, not only what is in them but what lies beyond them.
It would be interesting here to contrast the power of different writers in this respect; to look at what may be termed the comparative depth of their words. Some writers seem to be all surface in their language, to possess no silent and reserved stores of thought underneath the
page, no soil to which what is given forth is attached, and from which it grows. Their sole labor seems to be to empty themselves in words. Their language is not so much the expression or growth, as the eradication of thought. They are not content to put forth an idea, but must pull it forth with all its roots (if by any means, in any rare interval of reflection, it has taken root in the mind) and lay bare all its hidden fibres, dissevered from their vital attachments in the soul, as if they feared there might be some secret shred of thought within, which the world should not discover! Hence their words are as powerless as they are shallow and “obvious.” Involving no thought in themselves, they demand no thought in the reader ; of course they cannot
283 be misunderstood, for there is nothing below or behind them to understand.
With others, and these are invariably the men of most thought, and who have therefore most to express, words are used chiefly as external symbols, the summits, as it were, of what lies concealed and cannot be expressed. The “art” or excellence of such writers consists in suppressing rather than expressing the entire thought. This is especially true of that which involves strong emotion, which is uttered in the fewest words, but these the deepest and most intense. It is as if silence were the only fitting language, and the few words that escape were the involuntary outbreak of thoughts too great for control. More than this were a violence done to nature, an over. stepping of the boundary between language and its mental interpretation, between what can be written or spoken, and what can only be meditated. The words of Milton and Shakspeare are mostly of this nature. They contain much-more, a great deal, than all their commentators have gotten out of them; but they suggest and indicate far more. They open recesses and mines of thought, deeper and richer than language can explore. They are transparent windows, through which we look down into an unknown and infinite deep, “the unknown depth of silence," as Carlyle calls it.
Every one who has studied Shakspeare, has been astonished at the wonderful depth of his characters. By a few significant actions and speeches seemingly the most casual, he lays open a whole internal world of character. We seem to know the beings thus casually presented to us, personally, all their past experience and history, not simply what they here say and do. What in actual life takes us years of intimacy to attain, is here accomplished by a few touches and incidents, we know not bow. There seems an utter disproportion between the means employed and the result. The Oriental fable is for once realized, and the poet, by the utterance of a magic word, lets us into the inmost enchanted chambers of the heart. But it is the word of a master, which none other can pronounce. There are certain outward traits and demonstrations which involve the whole internal character, as the blossom involves the whole past growth, and all the individual parts of the plant which produces it. The poet, by seizing upon these, has put us in connection with all the secret principles and workings of which they are the result. Now just what these outward traits are to character, certain words are to the inner world of thought; and whoso has the insight and the skill to seize them, whether poet, or orator, or essayist, is the man of power.
The connection we have thus attempted to trace between thoughts